US waits as BP engineers battle to contain oil

Gulf shore Americans were watching and waiting yesterday to see if they were going to become the first victims of the giant BP oil slick.

However, wind and waves calmed as masses of the oil lurked off the beaches and bayous.

By late yesterday, only some oil sheens had reached coastal waters in the south-eastern US, and the oil's slow progress was allowing crews and volunteers to lay booms in front of shorelines.

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"You mentally want to push it back to the west, and then you feel guilty for doing so," said the manager of an hotel on an island off Florida.

BP has been unable to shut off the undersea well spewing 200,000 gallons a day, but crews have reported progress with a new method for cutting the amount of oil that reaches the surface.

They are using a remotely operated underwater vehicle to pump chemicals called dispersants into the oil as it pours from the well, to break it up before it rises. Results were encouraging but the approach was still being evaluated last night.

Several river boat pilots said the edge of the oil slick yesterday was 15 to 20 miles off the Southwest Pass, where ships heading to New Orleans enter the Mississippi River.

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The consequences on those whose livelihoods rely on the richness of the sealife in the waters was obvious. Fishing has been stopped in most waters between the Mississippi River and north-western Florida, leaving boats idle in the prime spring season.

Inns and restaurants that count on tourists attracted to the beautiful blue-green waters and sandy white beaches already are getting calls.

Engineers from BP have failed to come up with a solution to halt the huge leak that followed an offshore drilling platform blowing up and sinking on April 20, killing 11 workers. BP operated the rig that was owned by Transocean.

Crews have not been able to activate a shutout valve underwater. And it could take another week before a 98-ton concrete-and-metal box is placed over one of the leaks to capture the oil.

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Worse, it could take three months to drill sideways into the well and plug it with mud and concrete to stop the worst US oil spill since the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska, leaking nearly 11 million gallons of crude.

BP said it would compensate people for "legitimate and objectively verifiable" claims from the explosion and spill, but President Barack Obama and others pressed the company to explain exactly what that means.

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